Children Overboard

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The children overboard affair refers to claims made two days into the 2001 Australian election campaign by the then Immigration Minister, Phillip Ruddock. Ruddock claimed that asylum seekers had thrown babies overboard from a fishing boat as a way of pressuring the Australian Navy to rescue them and take all the asylum seekers to Australia.

"A number of children have been thrown overboard, again with the intention of putting us under duress" Ruddock told a media conference on October 7, 2001.[1] Australian Prime Minister John Howard said on talkback radio "I can't comprehend how genuine refugees would throw their children overboard". [2]

As 'evidence' the Australian government released photos of children in the water being rescued by Australian Navy personnel.

Howard's Liberal Party had decried to making anti-refugee policy one of the cornerstones of its re-election bid in an effort to win support from the former supporters of Pauline Hanson's populist One Nation Party, which first proposed using the Navy to repel asylum seekers arriving by boats.

However, in the last week of the election campaign doubts that the released photos were in fact of children 'thrown' into the water but of people being rescued when their boat sank on October 8.

The military tried to correct the record but the federal government refused to hear. The federal government continued to claim that children were thrown overboard and used the issue to help them win another term in the federal election.

On November 8, just two days before the election the then Defence Minister, Peter Reith, released a video claiming it was proof that children had been thrown overboard. However, the video only showed a man standing at the railing on the boat holding a child. "Well, it did happen. The fact is children were thrown into the water," said the then Defence Minister, Peter Reith.[3]

Howard's Liberal Party ruthlessly exploited the anti-refugee sentiment they created. On election day they ran full-page newspaper advertisements repeating a key line in Howard's election launch speech. "We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come … a vote for your local Liberal team member protects our borders," they stated. [4]

Howard won the election but the controversy over the claims made in the 'children overboard' affairs persisted. The Australian Senate - dominated by the Opposition Labor Party, the Australian Greens, the Australian Democrats and several independent members - initiated a Senate select committee of inquiry into the affair.

As a result of the submissions and the cross-exemination of military officers and other witnesses, the claims that children were thrown overboard were disproved. However, what exactly Howard was told remained unresolved as the Government directed that key staff not appear before the committee to give evidence.

In particular, an adviser to Reith, Mike Scrafton, did not give evidence. The final committee report noted its "inability to question Mr Scrafton on the substance of his conversations with the Prime Minister" left the question of what Howard knew about the misrepresentations unresolved. [5]

In August 2004, Scrafton wrote a letter to the Editor of The Australian newspaper stating that on November 7, 2001 - just three days before the election - he had spoken to Howard on three occasions after viewing the video which he said provided no evidence that children were thrown into the sea.[6]

Scrafton wrote that he had told Howard "that no one in Defence that I dealt with on the matter still believed any children were thrown overboard". Despite this, Howard continued to claim that children had been thrown into the sea.

However, in the lead up to the next election - scheduled for October 9 2004 - the issue of Howard's credibility has become a major issue.


  • David Marr and Marian Wilkinson, Dark Victory, Allen & Unwin, 2003.ISBN 1865089397

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